Philip Barclay and Grace Mutandwa

Zimbabwe

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Wednesday 31 December, 2008

All we have is hope in 2009

The year ahead, 2009, looks grim when looked at against the background of the past year. Many in Zimbabwe would like to forget 2008 but for a whole lot of reasons this is something we might not be able to do.

It is the year when violent elections were once again held. With the first part of the elections was hope for change which was quickly dashed when no real  government emerged from March  and then later after the presidential re-run in June.

From then things just went straight downhill. Inflation continued on the rise and by the time we came to the end of 2008, it was way above 200 million percent. Some economists said it was already in the trillions.

From political uncertainty we staggered onto the bizzarre - foreign currency shops, in a country where more than 80 percent of the adult population is unemployed.and foreign currency is in short supply. Long winding queues at banks became part of our lives.
We still have a short supply of our own local currency.

Now the central bank has decided that each person can withdraw Z$50 billion a month, starting this January. Public transport during the week of December 25th 2008, cost Z$1bn one way. This by the end of January will not be enough to cover transport costs, buy bread, milk or any other provisions. A week before Christmas an egg cost Z$300 million or 20 American cents.

This month the biggest note in our purses if we are lucky will be the Z$50 billion. Not only is this not safe in the sense that if you lose that note you are done for, but it is also not user friendly. No one ever has change. We saw this when a $50m note
was introduce in December and then followed by other ridiculously high notes.

Public transport operators and the local currency shops just increased their prices to avoid having to scrounge for change. A market was created for people who would give you change at a premium. This is the only country in the world where people sell each other their local currency.

The year 2008 also saw both our education and health system finally give up the ghost. Major government hospitals closed - there were no drugs, water, electricity and personnel went on strike.

Then came cholera in August. But it was to be forgotten about for a while and later to suddenly erupt with a vengeance.

A war erupted around cholera. The Zimbabwean Minister of Information went on the offensive. He shocked many when he announced that the British had buried spores of cholera in and around areas that were going to be established as residential
areas after independence in 1980. This is despite the fact that those areas were already built up at independence.

This would be hilarious were it not such a sad thing and unfortunate that with more than 20 000 suspected cases of cholera and more than 1,111 already dead, a whole government minister would find energy to come up with such bizzarre theories instead
of coming up with solutions or better still asking for much needed help.

Cholera, according to the minister, had  become a tool to be used by Western powers to effect regime change in Zimbabwe.

This is the tragedy of Zimbabwe - that we have such highly educated people who fail to put their intelligence and education to good use for the betterment of their country but choose to use it for destructive purposes.

While the cholera was raging, members of the civil society and opposition members were being abducted. The past year was indeed a negatively eventful and nerve-wrecking year.

Ruling party leaders felt caged and ceaselessly attacked the West and those African countries that had not been supportive of the reigning mayhem. The interim South African president claimed his government would be guided by what Zimbabweans want - but is he listening? Or maybe that translates to what the rulers of Zimbabwe want.

We are indeed a people with very little hope but all we can do is hold onto that bit of hope. We have to hope that while 2009 will not be a prosperous year it will be a year of positive change, a year human rights get space, a year when democracy and
good governance get a chance. It should be a year when Zimbabweans can feel secure again, a year when we can look our children in the eye and tell them with certainty that they have a future in this country. I wish you all a year of hope, love, friendship, empathy and good health.

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Friday 12 December, 2008

We Shall Overcome

We shall overcome - one day peace will prevail over brutality.

Zimbabwe has joined the international community in commemorating the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence. All well and good but problem is, this is the same country where nobody who stands up to the regime is safe. In Zimbabwe this commemoration has lost meaning.

Jestina Mukoko, a former media colleague turned human rights activist was abducted from her home in the early hours of 3 December. A defenceless woman, clad only in her nightdress was forcibly taken by more than 10 armed men.

As director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), Jestina exposed and documented various human rights abuses before, during and after the Zimbabwean elections and subsequent disputed presidential run-off.

Jestina was working consistently and lawfully for the advancement of peace in Zimbabwean communities. Soft-spoken, Jestina is a warm, brave woman who went about her work in a  non-threatening way.

All efforts by her lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa to get the courts to attend to an urgent  application for a court order for the police, to produce Jestina if she was in police custody, or if not, to launch a search for her was only heard on the 9th December after a tortuous struggle by human rights lawyers.

Reports abound of female judges finding excuses not to hear it. One would have thought fellow women would be gravely concerned and falling over each other to get to the bottom of this savage abduction. But no, it seemed either too hot or not in their interest.

Yes a woman judge eventually heard it and ordered Police Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri, to delegate a team of police officers to work closely with lawyers from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) to search for Jestina, to search all places as maybe within their jurisdiction in terms of the Police Act and Constitution of Zimbabwe and to report progress to the Registrar of the High Court by 1000hrs each day until her whereabouts have been determined.

What about all those female politicians who only a few months ago were urging fellow women, including Jestina, to vote for them. Where are all those women today when one of their own is in trouble? What do these women stand for?

Abductions in Zimbabwe as human rights lawyers continue to point out, have resulted in many deaths. Everyone is worried that she was not even given the opportunity to put on decent clothes, get her spectacles and medication. We are even more concerned that no-one in authority seems keen to get to the bottom of the abduction.

The people who abducted her identified themselves as police officers. The police say they know nothing of the abduction and also argue that they can not search for her in Central Intelligence Organisation or military centres as they have no jurisdiction.

The fact that the Zimbabwean government is a signatory to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which recognises the protection to life and physical integrity of a person and is against arbitrary deprivation of liberty, has not in any way helped to protect those Zimbabweans who have stood up for what is right.

If anything, Zimbabweans have found themselves even more vulnerable. There is no protection for those seen as enemies of the State. And Jestina through her work had turned into an enemy of the State. A helpless mother of a 17-year-old boy and an aunt and guardian to a six-year old, Jestina was abducted at gunpoint - treated as a dangerous mass murderer.

That some people can actually live with themselves after being party to such brutality really breaks my heart. That some Zimbabweans believe life is worthless and can be treated with such disdain makes me grieve for my country. We have hit rock bottom, if we have lost all respect for the rights of others.

If anyone can wake up in the morning after participating in such brutality and look themselves in the mirror and still go around as if what they have done is the most normal thing, then the country has really hit rock bottom. We are in serious trouble.

It is indeed deeply, deeply sad, that Zimbabwe is stuck in a region where very few leaders have spoken up about the current brutality. What is going on here is happening on these men and women's watch and yet they are not moved. Where is the Southern African region's conscience?

It is a sad day indeed for all peace-loving and democratic Zimbabweans to wake up to the news that a group of armed men raided and abducted a defenceless woman in front of her shocked family.

What Jestina and several other activists who have been equally tormented stand for, is something that is so big that it scares some people. Scares them enough to get together a group of armed men to abduct one helpless, nightdress clad woman.

I am deeply sad but the more I think of what it took and how many people it took toabduct Jestina, the more proud I feel of this hard-working, soft-spoken woman. She is bigger than her tormentors. She is stronger than they ever will be.

If Jestina's abduction was meant to scare civil society then it was a terrible misculculation as this has made people stronger and even more determined to ensure that Zimbabwe becomes a country where human rights are respected and upheld and a place where ourguiding principles are of good governance and democracy.

People who use brute force and torture others, do so because they are scared of what their victims stand for. Wherever you are Jes, you are in our hearts, our trueheroine, a woman not afraid to stand up and be counted for the good of her country. We shall overcome.

 

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Wednesday 03 December, 2008

One big rubbish dump

I have just returned from a week-long training in London. It is good to be back home inspite of all the hardships but I came back when the country's sanitation problems had worsened.

I am running out of the little water I had stashed in containers. In the past I could count on my partner for water but now his taps have dried up too. The only friend I know who has a borehole can not help because she has not had power for two weeks now. I feel terribly despondent.

The whole city of Harare has no water. Our offices have no water and outside the cholera statistics are growing. Only a week ago we had someone from Population Services International (PSI) come in to tell us about prevention of cholera.

I remember vividly how she emphasised that we should wash our hands, keep ourselves and surroundings clean. she advised us not to shake hands. She spoke with passion. She made a lot of sense but today as I write this I am asking myself many questions.

Even Zimbabwe's health minister, David Parirenyatwa and president Robert Mugabe have taken turns to tell people about the importance of washing hands and general hygiene. But the question on everyone's lips is; "Where is the water?"

You can wash hands and keep your home and yourself clean if you have running water. We have had no water for several days and some of my colleagues have not had running water for months.

We have become innovative bathers but I do not know for how long we are going to be able to come to work without stinking the whole office out. There is a limit to how much perfumes and deodorants can mask body odours.

It will be very easy for cholera to wipe out whole offices. People are coming from waterless homes to waterless offices. Anyone who thinks cholera is under control is having one very big sad joke. The Zimbabwean government does not believe it should be
declared a national disaster.

And why should it? Hospitals are paralysed. There are no drugs. Some people close to the South African border are now crossing into South Africa for treatment. Of course it does not matter that some of these people will probably die on the way to South Africa.

The deputy health minister says 300 or so people have died. His boss, the minister of health puts the figure at 425. Doctors for human rights say more than 800 people have sucumbed to cholera and that more 11 000 suspected cases have been reported. Whatever the figures are we need to start taking cholera seriously and those saying it is under control should prove to us that it is under control by ensuring that basics such as water, sanitation and drugs are guaranteed.

With no water, no proper sanitation and more and more people having to dig shallow wells to get water, it will be a major miracle if half the population does not get wiped out in the next few days. It sounds dramatic but the truth is that our country no longer has a reliable water system, has failed to repair sewer pipes and completely neglected refuse collection so the country has become one big rubbish dump.

In the past around this time of the year, people are usually pre-occupied with preparations for the Christmas holiday. This year most people have no money, can not afford three square meals and are struggling just to make it through the day. Add on that we have crippling water and power cuts.

News agency reports say that some government offices have closed down due to lack of water and sanitation in the buildings.

Cholera has become an epidemic but not many are taking it seriously. Certainly not  the authorities. Vendors are still selling all manner of fly infested fruit and vegetables from the backs of their vehicles. People are hard pressed for cash so they still buy from the vendors because it is cheaper, even when they know they are putting themselves at risk.

In Zimbabwe today, you invite friends for dinner provided you have water and power. If you use gas for cooking you can still invite people but you warn them about a possible cancellation due to lack of water.

You phone your hairdresser first not to establish if he or she can fit you in, but to ensure there is water and power. There is however no guarantee that by the time you arrive they will still have one of the two or both.

The office has promised us water treatment pills but I hope when we do finally get them, water will be flowing again from our taps otherwise it will be a wasted effort.

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Tuesday 10 June, 2008

Horror in Zaka

No jokes in this piece, sadly. It’s just too grim.

I am making yet another election monitoring trip in Masvingo this week, along with our Human Rights Officer. It’s the eighth trip the British Embassy has made to the province since February in an effort to know first-hand what is going on. People are starting to recognise us.

The call comes through while we are in Bikita, watching a group of officials and stony-eyed youths in ZANU-PF regalia giving maize meal to party supporters. The Government has annihilated agriculture and has now forbidden UN agencies and NGOs from distributing food. So unless you promise ZANU-PF that you’re going to vote for Robert Mugabe on 27 June, you starve.  

The call says that there has been a bomb attack in Zaka and that people are dead. We aren’t planning to go to Zaka, but it’s only 20 miles away, 15 minutes the way Elvis drives, so we go.

First stop the police station.  A smooth plod denies any knowledge of a fatal attack in Zaka. He’s really good and we actually believe him. But I should have smelled a rat when he showed no interest in investigating my report, but lots of interest in who had called me with the tip-off.

On to the MDC office where we’ve been told the bombing took place. I have to get Elvis to pull over so I can admire the view behind a tree and, as we are parked, a police Landover, going fast, overtakes us. By the time we reach the MDC office, two policemen are standing some distance from it, instructing us to leave the area.

I must admit I lose my temper a little. I ask the more senior policeman why he is obstructing international observers going about their proper business. I ask him if he had arrested anyone for murder. I ask him if he, in fact, knows exactly who has done this.

The policeman says he had orders to obey. I ask him if he’s heard of the international tribunals where war criminals are put on trial, and the Nuremberg defence. I do appreciate that all this is going too far, but honestly, the indifference of this man to every aspect of a horrifying mass murder, other than covering it up, is too much to tolerate.

While our unsatisfactory conversation is going on, we manage to get reasonably close to the MDC office. It is entirely burned out. Elvis pulls the car up beside me and says sharply, “it is time to go NOW, this man is losing control”.

As we shoot off, another call. A man injured in the attack has been taken to a hospital in Masvingo. We zoom over there, Elvis-fast, and find the man - bandaged hands and feet and burned hair. His story of what happened is horrible.

Six MDC officials, sleeping in their office, were woken by the arrival of an armed gang at 4am. The armed men forced the officials to lie down and shot three people immediately. (I pray to any available God that they were killed outright). Petrol was poured over them all and they were set alight. The man I am talking to managed to tear off his clothes, beat out the flames burning his body and escape. Two men are dead, their bodies unrecognisably burned, and another suspected dead but his body is missing. Two men have burns over large areas of their bodies. They will be lucky to live.

If you are one of the few people in this world who believe there is not a ghastly crisis in Zimbabwe; if you believe the brazen official lies that the MDC is responsible for the violence; or if you believe that a fair election is possible when opposition party workers are being burned alive, I urge you to reflect on what you have just read, and think again


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